March 18, 2011
The Catholic calendar is chock-a-block with saints’ days, though some are observed with more gusto than others. A few become crossover holidays (pun not intended) celebrated even by people who don’t know their “Hail Mary” from their “Our Father.” For instance, yesterday, March 17, was St. Gertrude’s Day, and people really whooped it up for the patron saint of cats. All those people wearing green must have been celebrating her association with gardening, right?
Tomorrow is another big saint’s day, this time for San Giuseppe, a.k.a. St. Joseph—as in “Jesus, Mary and….” Although it’s also celebrated elsewhere, the day has special significance for Sicilians, who attribute help from St. Joseph for saving them from a serious drought in the Middle Ages. People set up “St. Joseph’s tables,” altars laden with special foods, flowers and devotional objects to give thanks for the help the saint gave during the drought and for individual prayers the celebrants believe he has answered, such as bringing a loved one home from war. Because the day falls during Lent, the dishes are all meatless (at least by the Catholic definition, which doesn’t count fish as meat). They vary from place to place, but often include fava beans, which were one of the few crops that flourished during the drought, breadcrumbs to represent sawdust (Joseph taught Jesus the carpenter’s trade), and various breads and pastas.
In Italy Online gives an account of one Italian-American family’s celebration. Individuals are chosen to portray Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and they are the first to have a taste of each of the dishes. Afterward guests are also invited to eat. In this case the foods are all what might have been served in the village of the host’s ancestors, including vegetable dishes like fennel, stuffed eggplant and artichokes, fruits and cannoli and other pastries.
In New Orleans, possibly the parade float capital of the world (though New York is a strong contender), a St. Joseph’s Day parade follows right on the heels of the Mardi Gras season and the St. Gert—I mean, St. Patrick’s—Day parade. In San Juan Capistrano, home of one of my favorites of the California missions (although I wrote my 4th grade report on Mission San Gabriel), St. Joseph’s Day is when the swallows return from their winter migration.
If there’s one food St. Joseph’s Day deserves to be as famous as its Irish counterpart for, it’s zeppole, sometimes spelled zeppoli or called sfinge di San Giuseppe. These small doughnuts are usually dusted with sugar and can be filled with jelly, custard or ricotta cream like the kind in cannoli. If you’re lucky you have an Italian bakery in your area that makes them, or you can attempt them yourself—Giada De Laurentiis gives a recipe for a simple, unstuffed version like the kind I’ve eaten at Italian street fairs in New York City. Personally, I’d take zeppole over corned beef and cabbage any day.
December 7, 2010
In my half-Jewish family, latkes were a coveted once-a-year food. My health-conscious Catholic mother, who learned how to make potato pancakes from someone or other (certainly not my cooking-impaired Jewish father) made them on the first night of Hanukkah every year. We ate them just before lighting our menorah and saying the Hanukkah prayer. She always served them in the same way: layers of latkes with paper towels in between, and sour cream and apple sauce on the side. Pretty standard as latkes go.
Since I left home, I must confess I’ve been a bit lax in the menorah-lighting department. In the latke department, however… I excel. I’ve spent the past six nights making and tasting (okay, mostly tasting) latkes that are outside the traditional potato pancake box.
For those who have grown bored with the sour cream and apple sauce combo and are looking to reinvent the latke, I’ve rounded up some unorthodox (and un-reform, un-conservative and un-reconstructionist) alternatives—some I’ve tried and some I want to try—that are guaranteed to have you and whoever you’re feeding latkes to gobbling away for the last two nights of Hanukkah:
Passover Latke: Combine two Jewish holidays in one! Though there may not be any unleavened bread on the Passover seder plate, there are a host of other ingredients that just happen to make excellent latke toppings. Use a spoonful of charoset, a mixture of nuts, grated apples, cinnamon and red wine, for a new take on the apple theme. Or, for the daring, use a dab of horseradish and a slice of gefilte fish. For a less literal interpretation of the horseradish motif, the New York Times has an excellent recipe involving whipped cream, horseradish, chives, black pepper and smoked trout.
Greek Latke: The same New York Times article recommends using Greek yogurt as a latke base and sprinkling it with pomegranate seeds and drizzling it with honey. You could also take a savory approach to the Mediterranean theme by using an olive tapenade, sundried tomatoes and feta cheese. Here’s another idea: use Greek-style tzatziki yogurt and top with cucumbers, garlic, lemon and dill.
South-of-the-Border Latke: Top your latke with sour cream, and add cilantro, onion and a squeeze of lime. Throw some jalapeno peppers in with your potato mix to add a kick. Cooking Light has a great recipe along these lines.
The Breakfast Latke: If you think about it, latkes aren’t so far removed from a veritable breakfast staple: hash browns. To add a savory taste, finely chop the sausage (turkey, to keep it kosher!) of your choice, and mix in a delicious fruit. (Figs work well here, or you could just choose a chicken apple sausage to give that hint of sweetness.) Drizzle with real maple syrup to finish, or use a gourmet maple butter to act as a medium for the sausage (or to keep it not kosher). Adventurous latke eaters could try eggs Florentine using a latke instead of the traditional English muffin. Who says latkes are only dinner fare?
The “Everyone Loves Caviar” Latke: Lox would probably be more appropriate here, but I tasted this style the other day and couldn’t get enough of it. The Times recommends spreading salmon cream cheese on the latke and adding salmon caviar. This is one of the swankier options that will truly leave an impression on any Hanukkah guest.
December 1, 2010
Look up “holiday cocktails” and most of what you will find, understandably enough, is geared toward Christmas—eggnog and glogg and other names that require the entire Scrabble supply of Gs. Not that these drinks have anything to do with the birth of Jesus, but through tradition they have become associated with yuletide celebration.
But why no famous Hanukkah cocktails, I wonder? Is this just one more area where the Jewish festival of lights, which begins this evening, is overshadowed by that other, more elaborate and widely celebrated December holiday?
Don’t get me wrong—I love eggnog and hot chocolate spiked with peppermint schnapps, but they don’t go very well with potato latkes. Hanukkah needs its own distinctive drinks. So whatever the reason for the beverage deficit, I say we remedy it. Here are some contenders, one for each of Hanukkah’s eight nights:
1. Smithsonian digital editor Brian Wolly agreed to share his “super-secret” recipe for his favorite Hanukkah quaff, Manischewitz Sangria. Considering the kosher wine’s notorious sweetness, this seems like a natural use for it:
3 parts Manischewitz (any varietal will do, but Concord grape is the classic)
About half a shot of brandy per serving
2 parts Dole pineapple-orange juice
1 part lime juice
1 part lemon juice
1 part seltzer water
Cut up apple, grapes, limes, lemons, oranges and put them in punch bowl. Pour wine and juices on top. Add seltzer shortly before serving.
2. Or you can class it up even more, with a Manischewitz Sangria Martini, courtesy of the Houston Chronicle. They billed it as a Passover beverage, but I see no reason it couldn’t work equally well for Hanukkah.
3. In the running for best name is the Mazel Tov Cocktail, which is tinted blue—the traditional color of Hanukkah—by Blue Curaçao, a tropical liqueur that is decidedly not traditional for Hanukkah.
4. The Menorah Martini takes a similar route, adding an equally nontraditional garnish of blueberries (which, at this time of year, you’ll probably have to get imported from Chile)
5. Hanukkah Gelt Martini: Inspired by the gold foil wrapped chocolate coins, called gelt, given out at Hanukkah, this simple martini combines potato vodka (to go with the latkes, I suppose) and Goldschlager cinnamon schnapps, which has flakes of 24k gold floating in it. To add more of the flavor of the coins, add a drop of Godiva or another brand of chocolate liqueur.
6. The Dreidel: Your head may be spinning after too many of these cocktails, which include Slivovitz plum brandy, cherry liqueur, Angostura bitters and egg whites.
8. And for dessert, try the Sufganiyah, inspired by the delicious jelly-filled donuts that are a traditional Israeli Hanukkah treat. It includes raspberry and grape flavored vodkas, Chambord raspberry liqueur and cream.
Read more articles about the holidays with our Smithsonian Holiday Guide here
June 18, 2010
As you’re probably aware, Father’s Day is this Sunday in the United States. Wondering what you can cook up to make the day special? Here are a few fun ideas:
1. A truly tasteful tie. People blog about the strangest things. A few months ago, I came across someone who just likes putting weird things in coffee, and yesterday, I got an email from a young guy who “likes neckties. A lot.” He’s got an entire blog called Tiepedia, and for Father’s Day, he collected a bunch of Flickr photos of necktie cakes. Enjoy, and perhaps be inspired to create your own. (Come on, does he ever wear the real ties you pick out, anyway? Might as well give him the kind you can all share.)
2. Mower dessert? Torture Dad sweetly by reminding him of his household chores. Or give him these lawnmower cupcakes along with a coupon promising to take those chores off his hands for a while.
3. Thank him for raising such a brat. Then make up for it by grilling him some of Bobby Flay’s beer-braised brats.
4. Think he’s full of beans? I don’t know about your father, but mine drinks more coffee than Juan Valdez himself, so I often give him a bag or two of good beans. (And since he’s a bit of a nerd, one year I gave him this T-shirt depicting a caffeine molecule.) I bet he’d also love a coffee cake made with these recipes from Joy the Baker and The Pioneer Woman, both of which involve actual coffee.
March 19, 2010
Of all the times that various cultures observe the new year—January 1 on the Gregorian calendar, late winter on the lunar calendar, or early fall on the Jewish calendar—I think the one that makes the most sense is Nowruz, the Iranian new year, celebrated at the Northern Hemisphere’s spring equinox. Nothing says “new start” like the first buds of leaves growing on trees or the return of animals from hibernation, at least in those places with distinct seasons.
This year Nowruz falls on March 20, at 9:32:13 p.m. (Tehran time), to be precise. Recently the United Nations passed a resolution recognizing March 21 as the “International Day of Nowruz.” The observance dates back to ancient Zoroastrian tradition, and is also celebrated in many of the countries of Central Asia that were once part of, or influenced by, the Persian Empire. Because it predates Islam, its observance has sometimes been controversial. The Taliban banned it in Afghanistan before 2001, and just this week, Iranian officials denounced the ancient fire festival, Chaharshanbeh Suri, traditionally held on the eve of the Wednesday before the new year.
While jumping over bonfires is probably the most exciting element of the festivities, food also holds an important place in both Chaharshanbeh Suri and Nowruz celebrations. Ajeel, a mix of seven nuts and dried fruits, is distributed. (Seven is a significant number in Persian mythology.) Ash-e Reshteh is a noodle soup that is said to bring good luck, and is eaten whenever starting something new.
Spring foods, especially fresh herbs, are featured prominently in Nowruz dishes such as sabzi polo va mahi, herbed rice with fish. Fresh herb kuku is a fluffy omelet that incorporates lots of herbs plus another symbol of spring, eggs. Decorating eggs, much like Easter eggs, is also a traditional part of the celebration.
A few weeks before Nowruz, people begin sprouting lentils, wheat or barley seeds, called sabzeh. By the holiday the seeds or legumes will have shoots several inches long, providing a powerful symbol of rebirth.
The sabzeh is then used for the sofreh haft sin, an arrangement of (at least) seven symbolic items that begin with the letter “s” (or, sometimes, the letter that corresponds to the “sh” sound in English), which is an essential element of the celebration. Like many traditions with ancient roots, the original significance of the haft sin is difficult to nail down. For instance, I haven’t been able to find out why the items must begin with “s”—if anyone out there can tell us, please comment below. One of the clearest explanations I have found is that the seven items correspond to the seven stages in which the material world was believed to have been created.
Aside from the sabzeh, these items include lotus fruit (senjed), symbolizing love; apples (sib), symbolizing health; a sprouted wheat pudding called samanu, symbolizing sweetness and fertility; vinegar (serkeh), which signifies age and patience (traditionally, wine—sharab—was used, but alcohol is not permitted in Islam); sumac berries (somagh), which either represent the color of sunrise, when good triumphs over evil, or the “spice of life”; and garlic (seer), a symbol of medicine. Additional items, some starting with “s” and some not, are also often included.
Many people also serve one of my favorite s-words: sweets, like this Persian pistachio nougat, flavored with rose water.